Beginner’s Guide to Mechanical Keyboards: Switches, keycaps, form-factors, and more
Mechanical keyboards are some of the best keyboards you can buy today as they offer a very satisfying feel and sound. They’re also more customizable and generally help in improving your productivity, especially if you’re planning to get one for typing. Even gamers prefer playing on a mechanical keyboard as they’re fast, reliable, and have a long shelf life. But what exactly is a mechanical keyboard, and how does it differ from a regular keyboard? We’re going to answer that and a lot more in this beginner’s guide to mechanical keyboards.
Mechanical keyboard vs. Membrane keyboard
If you’re out in the market looking for a new keyboard, you broadly have two choices. The most common type is a membrane keyboard that has rubber domes or pressure pads under each key which, upon pressing, completes the circuit and sends the command of the given key. Instead of using any mechanical parts, these keyboards use silicone, a rubber sheet, or a pad that sits on top of the circuit board.
While these are great for users who want a slim, compact keyboard, they’re not the most accurate while typing. You also have to consider the life of the rubber padding underneath as it can decay over time. On the positive side, these keyboards are inexpensive and more resistant to dust and liquids, requiring less maintenance.
On the other hand, mechanical keyboards make use of an individual switch mechanism for every single key. Each mechanical key switch includes a keycap that’s attached with a stem, along with a spring, metal contact leaves, and a slider placed inside the switch housing. Each part can have variations, thus allowing manufacturers the flexibility to give a large variety of options to users. They can fine-tune the pressure required for bottoming out each key, travel distance, actuation point, the sound made, and more.
Basically, a mechanical switch can be offered with a wide range of customizations when compared to a membrane keyboard. However, like every mechanical part, the key switches need maintenance if you want your keyboard to last long. Apart from cleaning, you need to lubricate the switches and maybe even use modifiers like stabilizers or films to reduce clacking.
If you’re unable to understand any of the terms that we’ve used below, there’s an excellent guide you can refer to.
How does a mechanical keyboard work?
To understand how a mechanical keyboard works, let’s first understand the mechanical keyboard switch. Each key on a mechanical keyboard includes its own switch. At the top is the keycap, which isn’t necessarily a part of the mechanical switch, but it’s where your fingers press the switch and is partially responsible for the sound generated when the key bottoms out.
The keycap is attached to a stem that comes in different designs and determines the actuation and travel distance of the switch. It sits inside the upper housing that protects the stem and is also the place where your keycap hits when you press a key.
Then we have the spring that’s responsible for how much pressure is required to actuate or register the keypress. It also pushes the stem back to its original place after a keypress. The metal contact points or contact leaves are where the actual electrical current flows, and the keypress is registered. We also have a lower housing that connects with the upper housing on the top and into the keyboard chassis at the bottom.
When you press a key, the stem pushes the spring down, thereby allowing the two metal contacts to connect and register your keypress to the keyboard’s circuitry and thus to your computer. By adding variations to the different parts of the switch, manufacturers can offer a different feel, sound, and actuation force. Hence we have a variety of keyboard switches that are either linear, tactile, or clicky.
Mechanical switches are available in three categories that are based on their characteristics. They’re either linear, tactile, or clicky. Linear switches are usually smooth and offer a consistent actuation without any tactile feedback. The actuation of a keypress happens when it bottoms out, and since there are no bumps in between, linear switches glide down rather easily.
Tactile switches are very similar in terms of construction as linear but include a bump halfway through the key’s downward travel. This bump signifies the actuation point, which means that a keypress is registered before it fully bottoms out. This enables a faster typing experience since the key doesn’t have to travel all the way down to actuate.
Clicky switches are almost the same as tactile switches, including a bump in the mechanism but are louder, giving a very satisfying sound. The additional audio feedback isn’t always pleasing and can be annoying for certain users.
Some of the key characteristics of a mechanical switch include:
Actuation point, which refers to the specific point when the key switch registers the keypress. Different switches can have a variety of actuation points, measured by force in grams.
Bottom out, is when a key is pressed hard enough to press down the switch completely. It’s also measured in force, where a higher bottom out weight means it’s much harder for you to press all the way down.
Key travel is how far the switch goes from fully depressed to bottoming out. The standard travel distance is 4mm but there are a few mechanical switches that offer lesser travel distance.
Traditionally, linear switches are said to be good for gaming, while typists prefer clicky and tactile switches. Of course, there are no rules here, and it all depends on how comfortable you are with a certain key switch.
Based on these three types, we have several switches available from a variety of manufacturers. Alps and Cherry are legacy brands that continue to offer some of the best mechanical keyboard switches. Gateron, Otemu, and Kailh are also some of the more popular names when it comes to mechanical key switches.
The past few years have seen a huge rise of Cherry MX-based mechanical keyboards primarily offered in red (linear), brown (tactile), and blue (clicky) colored switches. Color coding is the best way to determine the characteristics of each switch. While it’s mostly universal, certain manufacturers have their own color-coding that can confuse first-time buyers. Here are some of the popular ones:
- Cherry MX
- Cherry MX Blue: Clicky, 50gram actuation
- Cherry MX Brown: Tactile, 45gram actuation
- Cherry MX Red: Linear, 45gram actuation
- Cherry MX Black: Linear, 60gram actuation
- Gateron Blue: Clicky, 55gram actuation
- Gateron Brown: Tactile, 45gram actuation
- Gateron Red: Linear, 45gram actuation
- Gateron Black: Linear, 50gram actuation
- Kailh Silver: Linear,40gram actuation
- Kailh Copper: Tactile, 50gram actuation
- Kailh Bronze: Clicky, 60gram actuation
- Kailh Gold: Clicky, 60gram actuation
- Kailh Box Black: Linear 60gram actuation
- Kailh Box Brown: Tactile 50gram actuation
- Kailh Box Red: Linear 45gram actuation
- Kailh Box White: Clicky 45gram actuation
- Logitech Romer-G
- Romer-G Tactile, 45gram actuation
- Romer-G Linear, 45gram actuation
- GX Blue: Clicky, 50gram actuation
- Razer Green: Clicky, 50gram actuation
- Razer Orange: Tactile, 45gram actuation
- Razer Yellow: Linear, 45gram actuation
- Razer Opto-Mechanical: Clicky, 45gram actuation
- HyperX Red: Linear, 45gram actuation
- HyperX Aqua: Tactile, 45gram actuation
These are just some of the most common mechanical key switches. There are a lot more switches available for you to explore from brands like Outemu, ZealPC, MOD, etc.
Most mechanical keyboards have these switches soldered onto the main circuit board. However, there are a few manufacturers that offer mechanical keyboards with the option of hot-swapping the switches. You should definitely check out Glorious GMMK, if you’re interested in hot-swappable mechanical switch keyboards. Either way, you’d need to invest money and a lot of time if you plan to move to a certain switch type.
Having the flexibility to choose the type of key switch is also one reason why people opt for mechanical keyboards. If you plan to swap out the key switches on your keyboard, especially if you have them soldered, there are risks involved in this process. It’s advised you take utmost care before trying to remove the switches by yourself.
Size and Layout
Now let’s come to the form factor and layout options. Mechanical keyboards are available in traditional full size with a dedicated number pad having a total of 104 keys. Some manufacturers also offer additional media keys, volume knobs, or dials at the top.
If you don’t care about a dedicated number pad, you can go smaller with a TKL (Tenkeyless) size, which is essentially an 80% keyboard with around 88 keys in total. The TKL form factor is also available in a 75% size, which basically has the keys cramped together.
Then there are 65% and 60% keyboards that only have about 61 keys. This form factor removes anything to the right of the Enter key, along with the function row on top. You can access extra functions by holding down the FN and pressing other keys.
It all comes down to the size of your desk and your personal preferences. Small keyboards do look neat and take up less space, but they can take some time to get used to the layout.
Speaking of which, let’s quickly understand the layouts.
There are a total of three universally accepted layouts — ANSI, ISO, and JIS. Layouts are primarily based on the region, where ANSI is for America, ISO for Europe, and JIS for Japan. Primarily the difference between them is how some of the keys are placed. ANSI and ISO are mostly similar, with the Enter and Shift keys having different shapes and sizes. On the other hand, JIS has a similar layout of the Enter and right Shift key as ISO but also has a different bottom row layout.
Keycaps are the plastic caps that cover each key. They’re easy to remove and replace where you can get them in various sizes, shapes, colors, and plastic, and of course, the letters printed on them. Keycap sets are easily available either as base kits covering most conventional board layouts or extension kits that include only a small set of keycaps.
Before choosing the right set of keycaps, make sure you confirm the layout and form factor as mentioned above. Additionally, check if your keyboard has a standardized layout. For instance, Corsair has certain keyboards that offer a slightly different bottom row layout where the size of the keycaps differ, thereby not allowing you to use third-party keycaps.
Another important factor to consider while choosing keycaps is the profile. Usually, a keyset has either a sculpted or a uniform profile. With the former, the keys in each row have a different shape and height. Essentially, sculpted keycaps can’t be used on the rows they’re not designed for. A keyset with a uniform profile is pretty simple where each row of keys is the same shape and height, allowing you to place the keycaps on any row as required. Keycaps can also differ in height, where low-profile keycaps offer less weight allowing you to type faster.
Keycaps are basically just a piece of sculpted plastic. They’re usually made of either ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), which is the most common one, or PBT (polybutylene terephthalate), which is gaining a lot of popularity. ABS keycaps are available in a wider color range, offer better and sharper letter printing, and are straighter and more consistent. PBT, on the other hand, offers a rougher texture and doesn’t wear out that easily. PBT keycaps also come with a deeper sound profile and are recommended for non-conventional artisanal design.
Other factors to consider
Whether you’re a gamer or an avid typist, there are some additional things you need to know about mechanical keyboards. Depending on your use case, you can opt for a wireless or a wired mechanical keyboard. Certain manufacturers offer keyboards that have a detachable cable, which is convenient for portability.
As with wireless mice, wireless mechanical keyboards either use Bluetooth or a 2.4GHz based connectivity method via a USB-based receiver. While both are equally good, the latter offers much lower latency. These often come with different names depending on the manufacturers and are the preferred choice for gamers.
Speaking of which, modern gaming mechanical keyboards now offer super-fast polling rates going up to 8,000Hz, reducing the latency down to a ludicrous 0.25ms. This means these keyboards offer the fastest response time, which is crucial when it comes to gaming.
Let’s come to keyboard backlighting. You can get mechanical keyboards with simple single-colored backlighting, which should solve the purpose of lighting up the keyboard when you’re working at night. Additionally, there’s the entire topic of RGB backlighting. It has strong opinions on both sides of the fence. While some absolutely hate it, others can’t live without it. Cheaper mechanical keyboards offer zone-based RGB lighting allowing users to light up certain areas of the keyboard with a certain color. Per-key RGB lighting, on the other hand, lets you create some crazy effects. Certain premium mechanical keyboards also offer additional RGB LED bars along with support of up to 16.8 million colors, giving you the freedom to experiment with all sorts of hues and color combinations.
If you’re looking for a new mechanical keyboard, make sure you check out our list of the best mechanical keyboards to buy in 2021. We also have a quick guide on how to clean and maintain your mechanical keyboard.